As the old Earth passed away beneath the stars, they were delivered. They discovered a new world where they could be free. The old order was done. The elders gathered and they called their new home Revival, a celebration unto the Lord. And they rejoiced.
It’s midnight and I can smell the new moon through the cracks in the concrete. This organism in my womb has heightened my senses in unnatural ways. I can hear the Council’s hushed arguments through the walls of my cell as they contemplate my death, their words carried by the night wind through the cracks in the concrete that constitutes the community prison.
Old habits die hard.
We’ve been on this planet for less than ten years and a prison was the first building we constructed. We have spent the majority of our lives behind prison walls. And here I sit, face pressed against cold concrete, trying desperately to hear my fate, a future that I reclaimed when I escaped the child prisons on Earth. I’d been shackled since the age of eight for offenses I no longer remembered. I fought the galaxies for this. We came here to be free. The irony of my imprisonment now is not lost, but stroking my swollen abdomen, I know my freedom no longer matters. They will murder me and the creature that grows within me. Fear and execution are perhaps the only lessons we’ve mastered.
Charlow pours boiling water into the steel tub in my cell and places a towel next to it. It doesn’t matter that I am not dirty. She busies herself with inane tasks to avoid looking at me. Instead, she folds the blankets on my bed, conspicuously looking for droplets of blood. To her disappointment, the sheets are pristine, stainless.
They told me she is here to ensure my comfort. In actuality she is my confessor, but she hasn’t said a single word. Her silence is confirmation of my damnation. It is sharper than the blade that they will slide through my belly.
“It is not my fault I am pregnant,” I tell her.
She pauses briefly and then decides to pull the sheets off of the bed. She knows that I am not coming back.
“I’ll bring you fresh linens,” she lies, dumping the sheets into a pile. She gestures towards the tub, “Get in before it cools.”
The silence of pure innocence persuades when speaking fails –William Shakespeare. I read that in prison, the first one.
So, I hold my tongue and comply. I stand and slip off the white gown before she takes my arm to help navigate my bulk into the tub. I can feel her eyes as I slowly sink in the water, and when I am finally submerged, she shudders and turns away. It has been years since any of us have seen a pregnant woman, at least until recently. I marvel every time I look at myself. It feels good to carry life, even if that life eventually brings death. I do not know if that is my emotion or the creatures. So I slide into the hot tub, but the soothing, hot water only fills my body with guilt.
“Then whose fault is it?” she finally asks.
“You can go if you want. I didn’t ask you to come.”
She turns now and stares openly at my full stomach floating in the steaming water. “How could I not come? You’re my sister.”
“And you are the most selfish bitch I know,” she continues, “you threaten the entire community with this life you hid for so many months.”
“It will be human,” I say with a certainty I do not feel.
“We don’t know that,” she shakes her head, “Tell me. Who is the father, Serene?”
As a child my mother would tell me that I had an answer for everything. I could explain the inexplicable. As our jailers broke their frustrations on our black and brown backs, my grandfather would test me with why. “Why, Serene, does the moon mark night?” he would ask. And I would answer, “Because, Abba, whiteness always brings darkness and when we see it coming, we must fight, hide, or flee.” Eventually, we would choose the latter. When outnumbered, always flee. But I do not have an answer for Charlow. Not one that she will understand or accept. Tonight there is no moon, and the darkness that comes is pitch black. Agitated by my silence, Charlow bursts into tears.
“I am so sorry, sister.”
“You are not sorry,” she spits the words with the fire of accusation, untethered by her tears.
I do not know if it is the shame of my transgression or the inevitability of my execution that fills her with sorrow. I suspect it is both. I watch as anger and sadness overtake her in equal measure.
“It will be human,” I whisper, but there is little comfort in denial.
There is a knock at the door.
There is no time for either remorse or denial. Charlow wipes her tears roughly on the hem of her shirt and snaps to action. Quickly, she helps me out of the tub and covers my swollen body with a large white sheet. As I dry off and slip into a fresh gown, she opens the door a crack and pokes her head through. I cannot see, but I know it is Achebe.
“Yes,” she says, her voice filled with nerves.
“Did she tell you?” he asks.
She casts a look back at me and then slips out the door, slamming and locking it shut behind her. It is no matter. I can hear every word.
“No, Achebe, she has told me nothing,” Charlow responds, “She just says it is not her fault, that the child will be human. Nothing that will save her life. Please talk to her. They will kill her tonight.”
Achebe sighs. He does not want to see me pregnant. But, despite my betrayal, he does not want to see me executed either. He will come in and face me.
I back away from the door and take a seat on the bed. My hair hasn’t been braided or oiled in days. It surrounds my head like a brittle halo. My brown skin is gray from the bath water and I am easily triple my normal size. My ankles are swollen and deep purple veins are visible up and down my legs.
I won’t be the woman he remembers.
He steps into the room, and as always, I am startled by his beauty. Six feet five inches and lean, he walks over to the bed and takes a seat next to me. But he can’t look at me. Instead, he stares at the wall, his smooth ebony hand sliding over my own and squeezing. He frowns, trying to find the words. His tight cornrows reveal all the stress and confusion furrowing his brow. I love him and I want to comfort him, but I was never in love with him. I think he knows that now.
“Serene,” he begins slowly, “why?”
Why does he have to begin with why? I take my hand back and rub it nervously against my thigh. “If you have to ask then you never really knew me,” I say.
He sighs. I have always frustrated him.
“I wanted a baby,” I finally answer. “And I guess a new lover, too,” I add.
He winces. “And that’s worth your life.” It is more statement than question. He condemns me. “It wasn’t time, Serene. We still don’t know this planet. We could have had a baby together in a few more years.”
“Or become extinct waiting. Why did we escape Earth? To grow old and slowly die off?”
He lowers his voice to a whisper, “The last pregnant woman gave birth to a monster, Serene. It ripped her apart.”
“No,” I stand now. “I was there. It was not a monster. It was just different and she had lost so much blood. This place is different, so the children will be different. Different is not always dangerous.”
“It ate her alive, Serene. It ripped Ayo apart and almost went after you before they put it down. You are not thinking clearly. This thing inside of you . . . it’s clouding your judgment.”
There is a sharp pain in my womb. I ignore it.
“And Ayo wouldn’t confirm paternity either,” Achebe continues, “Serene, does this creature have a father? I mean, it sure as hell ain’t me.”
“All children have fathers.”
“A human father?” He stands and begins pacing the room. “Serene, it is a virus,” he beings to explain. Like most men, he assumes he has information that I do not, so I just listen as he continues, “It’s affecting us all. In the food we eat, the water we drink. It’s slowly changing who we are. Wounds are healing. Disease is disappearing. For godsake, we’ve stopped aging. Why do you think this thing is keeping us alive? We are its cattle! And you’ve just elected to breed with it.”
“Change is not always a bad thing.”
But he ignores me. “Until we understand this virus, figure out what’s happening to us and why, it is not safe to give birth. It is a threat to our entire community and everything we’ve been building for the last ten years. This whole situation is draining our resources. We need to conquer this disease, not spend weeks trying to figure out if your baby will be human.”
I cup his face with my hands and kiss the creases on his forehead. He doesn’t pull away. He’s missed my touch as much as I’ve missed touching him.
“Achebe, it is not a disease. It is gift. And I promise you it is sentient.”
He pulls away. “And you bred with it? You gave your body to it, Serene.”
“Would it hurt less if I lied?”
“There are no advanced life forms on this planet, Serene.” He spits my name like it is poison.
“Stop saying my name like that.”
“This has been confirmed by elders much older and wiser than you, Serene.”
“Then how do you explain this?” I say gesturing towards my belly. There are tears in his eyes now. “If I wanted my sex life and reproduction to be regulated, Achebe, I would have stayed on Earth. This was my choice.”
“You stupid . . .”
He leaves with the bitter dignity of a man who has finally accepted the infidelity of his lover. He needed to see me again to convince himself that I am not the woman he fell in love with. Hopefully when I am dead, he will not suffer.
The pain returns. If I make it through the night, my baby will be born by morning. I hid its existence for seven months. Now both of us must face the consequences of this conception.
“Come now,” I urge, “or they will kill us both.”
The pain intensifies. I sit back on the bed and breathe deeply. This baby must be born tonight.
Charlow returns. Her anger is gone, her cheeks stained with tears. She leans against the door, as if to block the inevitable. “The Council is coming,” she chokes back the sobs.
I just nod.
“I can’t stop them,” she says.
I nod again, “I know.”
“You did this to yourself.”
“I know that, too.”
She falls to her knees, overwhelmed by the inevitable. I go to her and I press her head to my womb. Then the child speaks. I do not know what it says, only that the gentle vibrations from my womb are words. Charlow scurries away, her hopelessness replaced with terror.
“What . . .?” I ask.
Her mouth opens but the words do not come. The child has taken her voice. She doubles over in pain, grasping her flat stomach and retches violently. Thick vomit flows down her chin and over the front of her dress. But there’s nothing I can do about that now.
My water has just broken.
The fluid from my womb washes down my dry thighs and spreads across the coarse cotton of my gown. I brace myself for pain, but instead I am filled with a strange tingling. The room begins to spin and I slip to the ground to avoid falling, but there is no discomfort. My birth pains have been transferred to Charlow. She stares at me, racked with pain, the contractions rippling through her body like violent waves. The amniotic fluid spreads across the floor and towards her legs. She moves away as if fleeing from poison.
The door bursts open and it’s Abba followed by the other Council members. They are our elders, men and women who have endured the worst of Earth. Their eyes are empty of empathy. The brutality of their lives has prepared them for the unspeakable violence required to survive an apocalypse and the sacrifices to rebuild civilization. They come to murder one of their own, to help a grandfather execute his granddaughter. He carries with him a large machete used for cutting the outgrowth of wilderness surrounding the settlement.
There is no ceremony for murder.
The first thing that they see is the puddle of fluid. Then they see Charlow, holding herself, shaking inexplicably with birth pains. They immediately turn to me. I crouch under the verdict of their judgment as Abba lifts the blade. I consider pleading for my life, begging for banishment instead of execution. But I won’t. I was chosen to carry this child. There is dignity in distinction, even when that distinction demands your death.
There is love in Abba’s eyes, but there is also fear and desperation. This is perhaps the hardest thing he has ever had to do. A father who escaped the imperial prisons of Earth so that his family could rediscover their humanity now stands above his pregnant granddaughter with a machete. When did we forget the sanctity of life?
The blade sweeps down and time slows, seconds become minutes. I watch the light reflect against its surface. I am transfixed by the sweet song of the air as it whistles through. I close my eyes and pray that this will be quick and painless. I mourn for the child that will never know life outside of my womb.
And then I am slammed against the wall and pushed towards the open door. I open my eyes in surprise. The machete strikes concrete and Abba’s arm is broken by the force. Arms spread to shield me from the Council; Achebe stands between Abba and myself. Charlow’s arms wrap around Abba’s feet to restrain him.
I hear a distant voice, growing louder.
Stunned, I look at Achebe. “Why?”
“Go,” he says, eyes fixed on the approaching Council, protecting me, warning them.
It is in this moment that I realize it is very possible to love someone too much. They will kill them for this.
I scramble to my feet, but pause for one final look at my sister. “Give me back the pain,” I command the child, and Charlow is immediately relieved. She staggers to her feet and stands with Achebe between me and the Council.
With his good arm, Abba knocks Achebe to the floor, but Achebe is quickly back on his feet, swinging in retaliation. Charlow joins him with her own kicks and claws as the rest of the Council piles on.
“Run!” she shouts.
When outnumbered, always flee.
They are all too confused and bewildered to come after me, so I lift my sagging belly with both hands and race down the hall and through the prison doors.
In the distance, I hear the sweet laughter of my lover. I feel Its kisses on my toes as the soil massages my bare feet. I am intoxicated by Its earthy odor and titillated by the seduction of Its whispers carried with the wind. I race through the thick bush, away from our settlement, and into the wilderness. Everywhere I turn, I am assaulted with love and the unbridled passion of an organism millions of years old. As I inhale, I take It deep into my body and then slowly out again. It is my world.
This planet has seduced my soul, crept through the tightness between my thighs and brought me the pleasure of a thousand feathered tongues. It planted this seed in my womb and that seed will give new life to a humanity that has all but destroyed itself. I blow kisses to the wind and my lover caresses me with a soft, sweet breeze. It leads me towards sanctuary to give birth to our child.
My contractions come like gentle hallelujahs.
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